Unscheduled Switch : Fullerton's Kerry Boagni Starts Working on His Weaknesses, But His Coach Wants Him to Keep Playing to His Strengths

Times Staff Writer

Here's a switch. When's the last time you heard a basketball coach complain about a player who was passing too much and not shooting enough? OK, maybe that's not unique. But can you remember hearing of a coach who benched a player because he was not only too unselfish, but was thinking too much on the court.

Kerry Boagni, Cal State Fullerton's 6-foot 8-inch senior forward, has been in the doghouse recently for just those reasons. After leading the Titans in scoring in five of their first six games, Boagni decided he was an assist man. About the time he started trying to penetrate and pass off, Coach George McQuarn started yanking him off the floor so he could sit on the bench and think about not thinking so much.

"Play Bo, just play ," McQuarn has screamed more than once recently as Boagni walked past him to a seat on the sidelines.

"He's started trying to do things he shouldn't be trying to do . . . like getting the assist," McQuarn said after Boagni saw a season-low 18 minutes of action in Fullerton's 117-94 win over U.S. International University last week.

"Bo's role is to spot up and shoot the ball. He's supposed to knock down the jumpers, not get assists. He's supposed to move until he gets open, catch the ball and shoot. If the shot's not there, he should pass off and let the offense create his shots. He's been putting the ball on the floor too much. Some players have the ability to make a move, then kick the ball off or create a shot. He doesn't."

Actually, there are a number of things Boagni doesn't do extremely well on the basketball court. He's not the best defender on the team and, for a guy 6-8, he isn't much of a rebounder. But he's averaging 15 points a game and when he's hot, he can sink the outside shot as well as any college guard in the country.

"Bo's going through a transition now," McQuarn said. "He was programmed from the beginning of the season to be a wing player and our designated jump shooter. We moved him inside on defense and now he has to focus on rebounding and interior defense. We're hoping he'll close the circle, so to speak, and get back in his comfort zone soon."

It seems likely Boagni will adjust. After all, he's made bigger transitions in his life.

Kerry Boagni has been a basketball "star" since he decided to concentrate on the sport in elementary school. After his senior year at Serra High School in Los Angeles, Boagni was on the Sporting News' Top 10 prep list and made more than a half dozen All-America teams. He averaged 24 points and 17 rebounds and shot 61% from the floor.

Almost everyone--including his coach, teammates, friends and family--figured he'd go to UCLA, but Boagni made a trip to the University of Kansas and fell in love with the college atmosphere in Lawrence.

"It's a great place, I still love it," Boagni said. "You really felt like you were part of something there. A basketball game is a big social event at Kansas. No matter who we played, we'd draw 17,000."

Boagni's freshman year was like a daydream come to life. He was the team's No. 2 scorer (14 points a game), was one of only four players to see action in every game and started all but six. His level of consistency--he scored in double figures 23 times--was nothing short of amazing for a freshman, and he was named to the All-Big Eight freshman team.

But his sophomore year belongs in the nightmare file. Things began to go downhill in the off-season when Coach Ted Owens left and Larry Brown took over the program.

Enter Brown. Exit Boagni.

"It was mainly a matter of playing time," Boagni said. "The relationship between me and Coach Brown was getting worse and worse as the season went on, and it didn't look to me like it was going to get better. So I figured it was time for me to leave."

After 10 games, Boagni packed up and left for home.

"My freshman year, I started almost every game and averaged 30 minutes," he said. "I was only averaging 19-20 under Coach Brown. We talked throughout the season about what he wanted, what he expected, but my ego got in the way. I figured everything should be just like my freshman year.

"I didn't realize what he was trying to tell me--to get stronger, to become a better rebounder, to be more of a team player--was only to help me. He was trying to to teach me all these things and when I wouldn't do them, he wouldn't play me. I can see that now, but then I just couldn't understand what was happening."

Boagni contacted the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Houston as well as Fullerton, but he was pretty sure from the beginning that he was going to come home.

"It was a bad time for me and I've always been very close to my family," he said. "I needed them then. I didn't want to go to UCLA or USC, and when I saw what transfer Leon Wood and transfer Ozell Jones were doing at Fullerton, it seemed to me that Coach McQuarn knew how to blend transfers into his program. I also like the philosophy at Fullerton. Coach McQuarn's hard-core, blue-collar."

McQuarn, after talking to Brown, told Boagni he would be glad to have him. But there's one very important factor that McQuarn says every transfer must understand: "Don't come in here thinking you're doing me a favor."

"It's a problem that we went through with Leon (Wood) when he transfered from Arizona," McQuarn said. "If you start thinking you're doing us a favor, you're going to come out with the wrong mental attitude and put yourself at a real disadvantage."

But McQuarn sensed a different problem as he talked with Boagni.

"He was in great shape physically, but mentally and emotionally, he was a wreck," McQuarn said. "He'd lost his confidence. After an outstanding freshman year, somebody had come in and told him he wasn't a very good basketball player. It shook him up. He wasn't playing much and when he did he was tentative."

McQuarn is an intense coach who believes firmly in discipline. But in Boagni's case, he decided to do something he had never done with a redshirt. He didn't require Boagni to practice with the team every day.

"He was confused," McQuarn said. "He needed a little time. One side of him was thinking he should've faced up to adversity and stuck it out. He was perceiving himself as a failure. I told him that sometimes change is for the best and what he'd done took nerve. It took real strength to come home and face his family, friends and his buddies on the playground."

Boagni has matured considerably in the last few years. He takes the time to think a question through and chooses his words carefully before answering.

"It's just a matter of doing the things I do well and staying away from the things I don't do well, Boagni said, referring to his current slump. "I guess I've been trying too hard to make a play.

"It's hard for a player to accept that there are some things you don't do well. But I've seen a lot and I've learned a lot and I'm still learning. I've had three coaches in four years, and I never pictured it would be like that. I always thought I'd be an All-American and a first-round NBA draft pick.

"I think everyone who ever transfered wonders if he made the right choice. At this point, I feel I made the right decision, but I wouldn't say I'm satisfied. Things could have been better."

Boagni is the quintessential finesse player. If he does make it to the pros, Moses Malone isn't going to be worried about losing his reputation as top-dog enforcer . . . or any rebounds for that matter.

"When I was a kid, my dad saw a quote by John F. Kennedy that said, 'Football will make you a man,' or something like that," Boagni recalled. "Anyway, he made me play Pop Warner. I wasn't into contact. I just kinda spaced out in practice and was a big-time bench-sitter.

"I remember walking home from games with my brother and slamming our helmets together so it'd look like I took some hard hits."

He's a different person, now, more concerned with pleasing himself than others and not interested in pretending to be someone he's not.

"I'm no Patrick Ewing," he said, smiling. "Heck, I'm not even a Spud Webb. You get older and you get more realistic. I'd love to play pro ball, and I hope to get a shot because I think I could be a good NBA player.

"Right now, though, I'm taking it day by day. I'm still trying to reach the top, make that ultimate goal . . . to be really happy." 'I didn't realize what he (Kansas' Larry Brown) was trying to tell me--to get stronger, to become a better rebounder, to be more of a team player--was only to help me. . . . I can see that now, but then I just couldn't understand what was happening.'

--Kerry Boagni

SAM MIRCOVICH / For The Times

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